It is well known that the painter Isabel De Obaldía gravitated to working in glass when in 1987 she decided to take a course at Pilchuck Glass Studio in Washington State where many a contemporary career in glass has been launched.1 Despite the obvious physical and logistical challenges, she found a métier that was uniquely compatible with her vision and her sensibility. Like metal working, glass can be constrained by certain gender associations. But there is also a performative aspect to the medium, that is as free-form and improvisational as it is controlled and predetermined. De Obaldía once described it as choreography where “everyone had a role.”2
One false step and one deals with molten matter at over 3000 degrees. Watching films of De Obaldía working one is struck by her deft navigation of the dynamics of often all-male studios and her vigilant participation in a process on which she is dependent on others to proceed. Bending, watching, cutting, intervening at just the right moment, she alternately directs, presides over and participates in the making of her cast glass works of art. It is she who lays out the open-face sand molds she prefers so that she can control the impression of surface elements and the insertion of elements that float like ghostly evocations of their ancestors within the substance of the glass.3 It is she who chases, carves and polishes the surfaces—opaque and sandy or translucent and smooth—to finish them and achieve the totality of texture and presentation for the final product.
In the series of glass sculptures in this exhibition—based on the pre-Columbian utensil of the metate or grinding stone—De Obaldía brings together a number of artistic and cultural signifiers. First there is the questioning of the relationship between art and craft which involves the negotiating of that liminal space between form and function. This negotiation commenced in the 1950s as can be observed in the work of Peter Voulkos (ceramics), Olga de Amaral (textiles), and Therman Statom and Josiah McElheny (glass), to name a few. So while De Obaldía’s metates are not functional, it is pertinent to note that this form continues to be used by indigenous communities throughout Central America. In her hands they become signature forms that evoke and represent cultural as well as formal and material influences in her work.
This fact begins to suggest how her work also relates to cultural and identity issues in the visual arts. Tina Oldknow would appropriately situate De Obaldía’s subject matter within modalities of primitivism in western art which date from the end of the 19th century.4 Edward Sullivan evokes currents of Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s and 90s,5 and Monica Kupfer reminds us of how the political traumas in Panama during the late 1980s greatly influenced the artist’s work and subject matter.6 But De Obaldía’s specific interest in and identification with the art of the Chiriquí and Veraguas provinces in Panama (see Taylor essay) also reflects trends in critical and theoretical thinking in the art world since the 1980s which have privileged issues of identity.
Artists of Latin American heritage have engaged various strategies under this rubric. Most have focused on the celebration of cultural retentions and resistance in Latino and indigenous cultures within the social and economic dominance of colonial establishments—both Hispanic and Anglo—in the Americas. A few artists, however, have actively engaged pre-Columbian art. They range from the late African American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett who, during the six decades she lived and worked in Mexico, referenced the ancestral sculpture of Mexico in her work to create powerfully nuanced figures of working women,7 to the Colombian artist Nadín Ospina who creates witty satires in stone where Bart Simpson, Mickey Mouse and Snoopy are grafted onto familiar pre-Columbian sculpture prototypes, in a move that critiques North American cultural dominance.10 She also allows us to glimpse her version of these animal and human motifs through sections of translucent glass set into the horizontal elements of the metates. And if, as Taylor notes, De Obaldía’s cast glass technique casts a glance at the metal working techniques that pre-Columbian American societies excelled at, the molten glass provides an analogue to the physical composition of the volcanic stone from which the original metates were carved. Form born from the alchemy of fire and earth. As Susan L. Aberth observes, Isabel De Obaldía’s work “does not simply draw from the past, it is a numinous reminder that it never left us.”11 Through the medium of glass and the mode of the metate, she evokes her own sense of her environment and the spiritual and physical relationship she has with it.
- See Monica E. Kupfer, “Isabel De Obaldía: From Paper to Painting to Glass,” in Primordial: Paintings and Sculpture of Isabel De Obaldía, exh. cat. (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, Nova Southeastern University, 2011), p. 19.
- Podcast of Meet the Artist: Isabel De Obaldía, Corning Museum of Glass.
- Edward J. Sullivan, “Between Two Dimensions: Paintings by Isabel De Obaldía,” in Primordial: Paintings and Sculpture of Isabel De Obaldía, p. 40.
- Monica E. Kupfer, “Isabel De Obaldía: From Paper to Painting to Glass,” in Primordial: Paintings and Sculpture of Isabel De Obaldía, p. 19.
- See Lucinda H. Gedeon, Elizabeth Catlett, Sculpture: A Fifty-Year Retrospective, with essays by Lowery Stokes Sims and Michael Brenson. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998)
- Ospina’s work was included in the exhibition Pre-Columbian Remix: The Art of Enrique Chagoya, Demián Flores, Rubén Ortiz-Torres, and Nadín Ospina, at the Neuberger Museum (April 28, 2013-July 14, 2013).8
In her interpretations of the metate De Obaldía captures the formal characteristics of the pre-Columbian versions including their silhouettes, the surface of the volcanic rock they are usually made from and the animal and human motifs that reflect pre-Columbians’ sense of their environment and the spiritual and physical relationships they had with it.9See Susan L. Aberth, “Emissaries from the Primordial Realms:” in Primordial: Paintings and Sculpture of Isabel De Obaldía, p. 43.
- Ibid. p. 35.
The glass sculptures of Isabel De Obaldía evoke the ancient spirits of Panama’s rainforests and seas. Many of her pieces have rustic textures that infuse her powerful forms with a compelling force, echoing the volcanic stone sculptures of ancient times. Her metates and vertical works are inspired by Pre-Columbian sculptures from the provinces of Chiriquí and Veraguas, where artisans carved large animal metates and peg-based vertical images of chieftains. Even De Obaldía’s technique of sand casting recalls ancient lost wax casting, in which a molten alloy of copper and gold slowly replaced a wax model encased in a ceramic block. This technique was used for hundreds of years in the chiefdoms of Lower Central America (Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama) to create gold ornaments. Artisans there became so proficient that they could craft jewelry with tiny bells and movable parts in a single mold. In her sand casting technique, De Obaldía composes a model of the metate, pressing different molds into a deep bed of moist sand and pouring molten glass into the resulting impression to form the actual sculpture. Fused with colored powders during the casting process, her reflective glass metates exhibit a luminous palette ― blue, green, red and yellow ― that captures the colors of the rainforests and seas and the creatures that dwell within them.
Today, much of Panama is covered with tropical forest, deciduous woodlands and stands of bush. But in 1502, Christopher Columbus found villages amid cultivated fields, rainforests and open savannas with secondary growth of grasses, canes, shrubs and trees along the rivers. Deer, peccaries and many other animals ranged freely over the savannas and fish were plentiful in rivers as well as along the coasts. The rainforests and seas teemed with fierce creatures: jaguars and other felines, poisonous snakes and frogs, sharks and crocodiles and creatures that bite or sting ― scorpions, spiders, jungle ants and crabs. These creatures make up the artistic repertoire of ancient Panamanian ceramics, gold jewelry and sculpture. As in all Pre-Columbian cultures, the native Amerindians of Panama believed that the world around them was inhabited by the spirits of trees, bodies of water and all living creatures (Linares 1997). In this animistic worldview, the power of the fiercest spirits ― jaguar, crocodile, shark and eagle ― accrued to the chiefs, who were considered closer to the ancestors and possessed of more spiritual energy (Helms 1979, 1992, 1995).
By the time of his fourth and final voyage in 1502‒1503, Columbus, having already subdued the Taíno and Carib people of the Caribbean, began to explore Lower Central America. He reported having seen more gold in Costa Rica and Panama than anywhere else in the New World. The chiefdoms he and later Spanish conquistadors encountered throughout Panama were governed by chiefs (quevíes) who were bedecked in gold ornaments and lived in large circular houses. The letters and diaries of Columbus and later Spanish soldiers frequently describe Panamanian chiefs resplendent in gold crowns, earrings, nose rings, breast plates, pendants and arm and leg bands.
A wealth of ethnohistorical and archaeological evidence suggests that indigenous Amerindians perceived the world as infused with spiritual brilliance. Anything shiny ― polished wood, iridescent featherwork, burnished pottery, obsidian, crystals, gemstones, a variety of metals and alloys ― was favored, including the polished European copper bells that the Spanish exchanged for native gold ornaments (Oliver 2000). Making shiny objects was an act of transformative creation, trapping and converting the energy of light into brilliant solid forms through a synergy of myth, ritual knowledge and individual technical skill (Saunders 2003: 21). Brilliant objects represented the creative power that animated and regulated the universe, embodied a society’s mythic identity, symbolized the efficacy of rituals and reinforced the powers of the elite who conducted them. The reflective properties of glass in De Obaldía’s metates, energized with the beasts and visages of ancient spirits of the Panamanian rainforests, conjure the Amerindian worldview of spiritual brilliance.
The chiefdoms of Costa Rica and Panama were not unlike those Columbus had discovered in the Caribbean in 1492 (Bercht et. al. 1997; Taylor 2004; Wilson 2007) and much of what we know about them comes from the same chroniclers who visited the Greater Antilles ― Columbus, his son Fernando, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas and the government official Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdes. In Panama, the queví was a supreme chief, with subordinate vassal chiefs known as sacos and a group of high-ranking warriors called cabras, who were given farming lands and fishing rights (Sauer 1966: 239). The rest of the population consisted of commoners who were farmers and fishermen and a lowly class of slaves who were prisoners taken in battle from enemy chiefdoms. Warfare was endemic, especially after A.D. 500 when the population spiraled and there was competition as chiefs sought to expand their control over neighboring regions (Linares 1977: 31). Absent from the accounts of the chroniclers is the social ranking of the artisans who created all the gold ornaments, polychrome ceramics and carved stone monuments. They must have been under the direct patronage of the quevíes for whom so many of their works were made.
In a typical Panamanian chiefdom, home to perhaps 1,500 inhabitants, groups of some forty-five circular and rectangular wooden dwellings with thatch roofs were clustered around several plazas (Linares 1977: 73). Chiefs were carried about on the backs of slaves and sat on small wooden throne seats known as duhos in the Caribbean. Large rectangular houses often contained stored foodstuffs but in others, the rafters were hung with the desiccated bodies of ancestral chiefs, wearing gold masks and dressed in their worldly finery (Sauer 1966: 222). People wore little clothing (loincloths and capes for men, skirts for women), but they used body paint to decorate themselves with designs that probably signified rank and status. Chiefs, sub-chiefs and warriors wore a great deal of body paint and many gold ornaments for ceremonies and when they went into battle (Linares 1977: 61 and 74). There is sketchy evidence from the chroniclers that native merchants traded raw gold nuggets from mines and alluvial sources (placer gold) with other chiefdoms in exchange for worked gold ornaments, woven cotton textiles, salt, slaves, finely painted pottery and other scarce goods (Cooke et. al., 2003: 135).
Archaeologists have excavated metates used for grinding maize (corn) throughout Costa Rica and Panama. They are undecorated and evince signs of continual use. They average about 14 inches in length (Lothrop 1942: vol. VII: 96).
In ancient times, starches such as maize, sweet manioc (boniata) and two varieties of sweet potatoes(batata and ages) were in common cultivation. There is disagreement among archaeologists as to whether maize or manioc formed the basis of the Panamanian diet. Sixteenth-century chroniclers describe a white maize that was ground on metates with rolling stones, then shaped into balls, wrapped in leaves and baked or boiled. However, they also state that maize was most often boiled with spices or fruits and then fermented into corn beer (Sauer 1966: 242-243; Hoopes and Fonseca Z. 2003: 77). The available tubers were easy to prepare by baking them in hot ashes at the edge of a bed of live coals, but maize may have become the dominant crop in later times (Willey 1984: 359-360). At the time of the conquest, the province of Chiriquí relied upon maize, which was not only ground and liquefied into a gruel as food, but also thinned out for fermentation into corn beer (Linares de Sapir 1968: 79). The Panamanian diet was supplemented by many species of tropical fruits. Fish was cooked and eaten right away on outdoor barbecues or smoked and dried for storage (Sauer 1966: 244). In the dry season (spring) people hunted deer, armadillo, peccary, tapir, rabbits and other small animals (Cooke 1984: 297).
Large metates, carved with felines, crocodiles, avian forms and fantastic creatures, have been recovered from the burials of high-status individuals (chiefs) in Chiriquí and Veraguas (MacCurdy 1911; Lothrop 1950). It is this large type, averaging about three feet in length, that has inspired Isabel De Obaldía in her modern glass sculptures. Most of the Chiriquí examples ― giant animal metates, sculpted cylinders and nearly life-size human figures on shaft bases ― come from the site of Barriles and have been dated by associated ceramics to A.D. 400‒600/800.
Some metates from Barriles have trophy heads around the rim and are supported by monkey figures as legs. The taking and shrinking of trophy heads seems to have been connected to these metates, perhaps because raids were carried out to obtain farmland and ensure adequate corn harvests.
Large metates may have been seats for chiefs or high-ranking warriors, as they show little or no signs of use. They may also have been made specifically for burial (Linares 1977: 24; Snarskis 1984: 210; Haberland 1984: 244). Regardless of their function, the large metates of Chiriquí and Veraguas present an impressive class of sculptures carved from volcanic stone. The most common form is the jaguar from Barriles. Among the published examples of large carved metates from Barriles and Veraguas, the largest is 12 inches high, 46 inches long and 19 inches wide. Although most of Isabel De Obaldía’s glass metates are somewhat smaller, usually about 8 inches high and 30 inches long, they convey the same monumentality through her stark presentation of rough surface and brute animal power.
Much of the imagery used to decorate ancient Panamanian goldwork and ceramics has been described as shamanic, based on a wealth of ethnographic information, archaeology and the art motifs themselves (Labbé 1995; Helms 1979, 1992, 1995). The recognizable animals and birds portrayed on ceramics and gold pieces are dangerous to humans, with body parts that sting, pinch, bite and devour ― sharks, felines, crocodiles, sting rays, poisonous frogs, venomous snakes and hawks (Linares 1977: 63-70). Other creatures are fantastical creations that combine animal, avian and human traits. As the Masters of Animals, chiefs were shamans who transported themselves to the otherworld in hallucinogenic trances to seek advice from spirits and ancestors. We do not know what natural hallucinogens they consumed, but tropical chiefdoms in the Amazon and the Caribbean ingested snuff made from the seeds and leaves of vines and trees. Many of these natural hallucinogens induce a sensation of flight, especially the crushed seeds of Piptadenia peregrina (known as cohoba and yopo) and the leaves of the vine, Tanaecium nocturnum (koribo), which grows in Panama.
De Obaldía has freely incorporated these creatures in her metates ― such as the scorpions in Dance of the Scorpions and the spiders atop Anteater King ― borrowing both image and inspiration from ancient Panamanian ceramics and goldwork.
The chiefdoms of Panama were conquered between 1514 and 1519, when the Spanish governor, Pedrarias Dávila, founded Panama City on the Pacific coast. In the native language of the region, “panama” meant “plenty of fish.” Like the Taíno and the Carib in the Caribbean, many thousands of Panamanian Indians perished from European diseases to which they had no natural immunity, such as influenza, small pox and measles. Many others were enslaved to work Spanish plantations and gold mines. Those who could escape fled into the jungles and to other provinces. The Colonial period of integration had truly begun. Today, pockets of indigenous groups comprise 5 percent of the Panamanian population, but their Amerindian culture disappeared long ago. Sadly, we know little about the ancient inhabitants of Panama because so many died so quickly during the first several decades of Spanish occupation. We have only the rich artistic heritage of ancient Panama carried forward so brilliantly by modern artists such as Isabel De Obaldía.
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